Tag Archives: photography

The Vicissitudes of Life, Photography and Weather

If vicissitude is a long word, do not worry. It means:

a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant.

Here in California we are finally getting much-needed rain.  The drought has been more severe than when we moved here 25+ years ago. Showers and clouds are quite welcome in these parts, provided they do not block out the next great celestial event.

The next great shower is the Geminids on the night of December 13th into the morning of December 14th.  Fortunately that is a weekend, unfortunately the moon is in its last quarter so it will rise near midnight just as the shower generally becomes more intense.

Meteor in Pointy Land

How to Watch a Meteor Shower

There are many guides on what to do to SEE a meteor shower, but we can boil it down for you:

  1. Dress very warmly. A thermos of hot beverages is strongly recommended.
  2. Get in as dark a sky as possible away from sources of light pollution, streetlights, etc. Do not use a flashlight. Let your eyes dark adapt so they can see their best.
  3. Get a comfortable fully reclining chair and look STRAIGHT up.  You’ll see more meteors if you can see the entire sky. While the meteors will appear to come from the constellation Gemini they can appear anywhere in the sky.
  4. Bring a friend along and share the wonders of the heavenly fireworks with them. Besides, officially you didn’t see a meteor unless two people saw it or you got a photograph 🙂

The constellation Gemini – from which all the meteors of the shower appear to radiate rises at about 7:30 PM local time in the North East.  At that time, the Andromeda Galaxy will be almost straight above you for most people in mid-northern latitudes. By midnight, Gemini will be overhead. We recommend a Planisphere or an app if you want to identify the constellations, but to enjoy the shower you need nothing but your eyes.

Photographing a Meteor Shower

In prior articles have covered how to find a dark location and how to plan for and photograph a meteor shower.  And we even have a thorough article that explains why you probably DID NOT photograph a meteor.  We even have led expeditions to capture meteor showers in a dark location.  Unfortunately this year we have faced other vicissitudes.

You can safely skip the rest of this article if you wish…

Showers in LifeDownload link error – hopefully resolved now.

We have weathered several storms ourselves recently, and like you find ourselves wondering where all the time went.  Most recently we were reminded how difficult it can be to maintain a website and sell digital goods. An increasing number of customers complained that the digital goods they ordered could not be downloaded.  We discovered that Google was the problem! We had been using goo.gl to create short links instead of long, sometimes multi-line links for downloading content, but Google insists – for your safety – to check the contents of each of those links.  It would have been fine had this happened once or twice, but we noticed that Google US, Google Czechoslovakia, Google Japan, and Google Brazil (and others) all separately scanned the links, sometimes multiple times.  And then your virus scanner may also have downloaded and inspected the content before it would let YOU have it…  It was a lot of wasted bandwidth and irritation. We rejiggered our software to resolve the issue. Bottom line if you recently purchased content and got a “Too Many Download Attempts” message, we think it should now work if you try again. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Also, as you may know, running a website is not for the faint of heart. For example, we are seeing another increase in attacks from Chinese Comment Spam robots as well as attackers in the countries of Georgia and Germany.

On a personal matter, Steven – the primary contributor to this website – was the sole survivor of an entire team that was laid off at his day job. Steven was fettered with sole responsibility for a vast armada of servers and networks – which all fell on their knees when a 30 second power interruption wreaked havoc. He also found that there were problems with his own home network which he has been building to be able to conduct webinars again (and to thwart robocallers) … His home network is still not reliable enough, unfortunately!

Meanwhile, we are still working hard on our 2015 schedule of events.  Please bear with us.

~ Steven


The Elusive Milky Way – Capture an Image

I assume you already read part one of this article which describes a bit about what the Milky Way is and what times and seasons are best for photographing the cloud-like expanse of innumerable stars.  In this installment we describe the equipment and settings you will need.

Just Ahead: A Universe of Possibilities

f/2.8, ISO 3200, 30 seconds, post processed and combined with shots of the bridge that were lit with a spotlight.

Standard Capture

To get a passable or better image of the rather dim Milky Way you need:

  • A high performing low light camera (more on that in a moment)
  • A large aperture (f/2.8)
  • A wide angle lens. Ultra wide even.
  • A cool/cold night
  • As little city glow and moonlight* as possible – see below for an image taken in twilight
  • A solid tripod
  • Patience
  • To know where and when to look!

To get a recognizable Milky Way in a single frame, you’ll want to use somewhere between 2000 and 6400 ISO at f/2.8 or wider setting. That’s very high, and a wider aperture than many people have paid for.  You’ll also want to expose as long as you can before stars are streaking.  We recommend starting at 30 seconds, and reducing your exposure time if the streaking is objectionable. Below is an image taken when the rising moon was beginning to wash out the sky and this may be typical of attempting to capture the Milky Way in a less than ideally dark scenario.

Group Hug

Moonlight and Twilight begin to overwhelm the Milky Way in Alabama Hills, California; 30 seconds, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 17mm

Some image degradation is to expected. For example vignetting and coma are both more obvious at lower f/stops. Coma is a comma or “bird-wing” like appearance of stars near the corners of the image.  Both coma and vignetting can be overcome by stopping down the shot – but resist the temptation because stopping down means losing some or perhaps all of the wispy milky goodness that you are trying to capture. Exposing longer will only help if you have some special apparatus (see Tracked Capture below). Are you wondering why exposing longer does not solve the problem? We have tackled the issue in two different styles: a cheerful allegorical example, and a recent math savvy explication.

What will an image look like captured with 3200 ISO? It may look like the image on the left below which is “straight out of the camera” – but perhaps not for you as this image was taken in a VERY dark sky area in Nevada.  On the right is the same Milky Way with some simple processing we will describe in the next installment.

SOOTC (and not SOOTC) [C_039467]

What is a “High Performing” Camera?

I qualified my statement earlier by indicating a “high performing” camera is needed for a standard capture like those I’ve shown above.  Since it would be impossible to keep an up-to-date list of the current “high performing cameras,” let me instead point out a few characteristics common to all high performers:

  1. Recent generation (2 or 3 years since introduction) is preferable because technology has steadily improved.
  2. Large pixels (to collect more light).  A common measure of the pixel size is in microns. Generally this puts full frame cameras ahead of cropped cameras.
  3. High “ISO at Unity Gain” – this is a measurement of the efficiency of the sensor. There are two good sources for this information: the DxO Sensor Scores and ClarkVision’s (older) tables.
Don’t be fooled by the “highest ISO” setting advertised. That number is completely meaningless.
As of April 14, 2014, the highest performers are listed by manufacturer and in order of performance. E.g. the Nikon D3s is better than the D800 – though the difference is small. Indeed, the D800 excels in some categories over the D3s. Cropped cameras are shown in italics – note that there fewer of them and none of the crop cameras exceed their full frame siblings. The underlined Nikon cameras are literally the topmost performers over all cameras.

Nikon: Df, D3s, D4s, D600, D800E, D4, D610, D800, D700, D3, D3X, D3300, D5200, D7100, D5100, D7000, CoolPix A, D3200
Canon: 1Dx, 6D, 5D Mark III, 5D II, 1DS III, 1DS II, 5D, 1D III, 1D VI, 1D III, 1 D II
Sony: A7R, DSC-RX1R, RX1, A7, Alpha 99, Alpha 900, Alpha 850, A6000, Alpha 580, NEX-F3, NEX-C3, NEX-5N, NEX-3N, NEX-6, NEX-7
Leica: M Typ 240, X Vario
Phase One: P40 Plus, P65 Plus
Pentax: 645D, K-5 II, K-5 IIS, K5, K-50, K-01, K-30
FujiFilm: FinePix X100
Not in contention: any cameras by: Casio, Hasselblad, Konica Minolta, Mamiya, Nokia, Olympus, Panasonic, Ricoh, Samsung or Sigma.

The list above shows all cameras having a DxO Sports (low light) score of 1000 or higher.

Cameras like the Nikon D90, Canon 1D II N, Phase One IQ 180, Canon 1Ds, Nikon D3100 and Leica M9 fall just below this threshold and may also be suitable.  The first eight Nikon models outperform the Canon 1Dx, and after the 1DX is the Sony A7R. The Fujifilm just barely cracks the list in 43rd and last place.

If you want the camera to cost less than $2,000 USD your current top choices are: Nikon D610, Canon 6D, Sony A7, Sony Alpha 850 or the Nikon D3300.  If we were to make a recommendation, we’d recommend any of the full frame choices over the smaller sensor cameras.  Note that prices vary dramatically, and you may find used higher performing cameras for less than $2000.

Stacked Capture

A “stacked” capture is what you may need to resort to if your camera performance is not so spiffy.  The approach applies astrophotography techniques to create a lower-noise version of an image.  The technique requires MANY shots of the same view. However using this approach you will want to avoid having anything but sky in your photo. Terrestrial elements will make stacking the image tricky.

Urban Milky Way [C_036919-23PSavg]The image at the left is a stacked capture to illustrate the point, however it was done with a high performing camera and only 5 images.  A lower performing camera will require as many as 20 or so captures to combat the noise. The method is described in my a “Astrophotography 101” Webinar and details are walked through in Astrophotography 301.  On the other hand, this image was captured in a location where the Milky Way was quite faint – alongside 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area so there is hope even where the Milky Way can only faintly be seen.

Details about the stacking method appeared in an earlier column as well as in an an earlier webinar.

Tracked Capture

The last way to get a great shot of the Milky Way is to track the sky with an apparatus called an Equatorial Mount.  By tracking the sky at the rate of the earth’s rotation you can lengthen a 20 second capture to perhaps a 60 second one. You can also use several such captures to create a stunning “Stacked Capture”. Again, however, shots which include the land are a bit harder to pull off unless you resort to layering. What do you need to do a tracked capture? We cover that in detail in the Astrophotography 101 Webinar, but in short, you’ll want an Equatorial Mount of some sort – not an Altitude-Azimuth (aka Alt-Az) mount! A device that looks intriguing and not terribly expensive is the Polarie.

Once you get that image (or those images), you will no doubt want to tease the most pleasing photo you can out of your data. That is a topic we’ll cover in the next installment: Processing your Milky Way images.

Who is Your Mentor?

My photography goals and ambitions, and in a real sense my results are attributable to a handful of men and women. Let me recount them and give you an idea what I have learned from each of them.

  1. My Father. Growing up with a darkroom in the basement inclines one toward photography! The strong early influence of developer and fixer remains in the blood long after leaving home. My father also instilled in me a deep reverence for the Washington Redskins whom I follow as I can from the other side of the country. Of course my father was the first one to receive a large framed copy of my award winning shot.
  2. My Wife. Many years ago we went on a trip of a lifetime to Greece and each evening we sat down to look at the images we had captured throughout the day. My wife has an eye for the beautiful and  interesting that I’m still hoping to acquire. Indeed, I just got word that one of my wife’s images has been selected for inclusion in a calendar to be sold at US National Parks!  She has also relentlessly and tirelessly supported me when I have been gone nights and weekends… and she seems to really like what I do. In fact early on she gifted me with a week long Eastern Sierras photo expedition from Kip Evans.
  3. Kip Evans. Kip’s fantastic photos of the California Coast and wildlife had inspired us. Under Kip’s guidance, the wonders of California and my hunger for photography reignited with a vengeance. Kip taught me many things, including composition and quite a bit about photography as a business. Kip is a friend and mentor, too. And it didn’t hurt that Kip’s love of the outdoors reminded me how much I love the solitude of mountaintops.
  4. Leonard Brezinski – a colleague and co-worker who as a “brother of the lens” challenged me on composition and framing. Many hours were spent in front of the computer monitor with Leonard making proposals for cropping and framing and processing of my early work. Leonard challenged me to think and photograph more purposefully, to eliminate the extraneous and focus on the subject matter.
  5. Harold Davis. I learned about Harold when Leonard and I visited Point Reyes Lighthouse. The ranger at Point Reyes told us of Harold’s photography. I had already begun reconnecting to my astronomy roots when I found Harold’s Edge of Night photograph. A Night Photography workshop at Point Reyes under Harold’s tutelage cemented my focus on night photography in particular. Harold as my friend and mentor has been a constant source of encouragement and sage advice even in matters that extend beyond photography.   Harold proposed that we work together in teaching Night Photography – he with a Nikon and Mac, me with a Canon and PC. He as an artist with strong creative vision, me as a scientist bent on perfecting photography and shot planning. It’s worked very well. I feel we’re the “Yin and Yang” of Low Light photography. And that’s how “Star Circle Academy” was born.

These are the top five, and, of course there are many others. Eric Harness, for example, taught me panoramic photography which has broadened my creative ability considerably. Not surprisingly, Eric is also a staff member at Star Circle Academy.

Who is your photography mentor? What did you learn from him or her?

If you would like to learn from Harold, Eric and me, we are adding more events and workshops all the time. One – perhaps our most immersive and compelling – is coming up REAL soon!

Magic and Photography

Or perhaps this article could be titled The Magic of Photography. Magic (illusion, prestidigitation, sleight of hand) and photography have much more in common than might seem immediately evident.

I am an amateur magician, and a card carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. That means I know how some tricks (illusions, deceptions) are accomplished and can perform a few as well. Indeed I have even created some of my own illusions. Being a brother in magic also means I have agreed to not reveal secrets to those outside the brotherhood. Fortunately there is no such oath for photography.

In magic there are basic underlying principles – both in the presentation and in the methods used to create illusions. In photography there are several immutable principles that govern optics and exposure as well as principles of composition and human nature that effect how we perceive things. Both magic and photography use these principles of perception. Both are about what should be emphasized and what must be eliminated from the observer’s perception.

Magic uses the word exposure, for example. In magic exposure governs the allowable viewing angles. Some effects are astounding unless the audience happens to be in an exposure zone and is perceptive enough to notice a concealed object or apparatus. In a photograph the selection of strong viewing angle or vantage point can create a scene that draws the viewer in – while a poor angle creates visual chaos.

What you Appear To See

In both photography and magic it is what you appear to see that lead to a satisfying experience – and sometimes the experience is as much about what you do not see! For example in the Photo 1 below of the Buttermilk Mountains near Bishop, California, I moved low and to the right to remove the road and the pile of tractor tires from the scene. My intention, however, was not just to conceal the distractions but also to place the blooming rabbit brush into the foreground to create four distinct layers of color. I could have gone one step further and cropped out the tiny bit of road that remains but I’ll bet you didn’t notice it (hint, look in the lower left).  In magic this would be called hiding in the open. For example a magician might hold a coin behind a dollar bill. If you have no reason to suspect that a coin is concealed there you will never notice unless the magician clumsily handles the bill or flashes the coin.

Rabbits and Buttermilk [C_008882]

Photo 1: Unseen are a road and tires. Visible are 4 distinct regions of color in this photo of the Buttermilk Moutains near Bishop, California

Viewing Space

Close up magicians like to work within a visual space approximately the size of a computer monitor or small television. They call this framing. As long as the magician can maintain your focus in the viewing area you are very unlikely to notice a surreptitious snatch of an object from a pocket or table top. If  you have ever seen a good magician perform a classic cups and balls routine, it can be downright stupefying to see an object as large or larger than the cup appear beneath it! Magicians have a huge advantage over a photograph though. Magicians can engage and distract their viewers visually, audibly and with motion.

A photograph, however, is purely visual and can only imply motion or sound. Of course a photograph also has a border and thus a frame. The size and distribution of elements within and near the borders of an image can create pleasure or dissonance. I have often heard the mantra to fill the frame with the subject and with good reason. If the primary element of the image is small then viewers are likely to wander in the picture searching for meaning and connection – and less likely to find it. Photography can employ devices to aid with this problem. Framing devices such as tree branches, fences, and terrain features can bring attention to the main thing.  Leading lines and “S” curves are very pleasing, too when they draw the eye where the key element of the shot is.  A photograph that has too many elements makes it harder to understand what is important.  Selective focus is another tool in the photographer’s arsenal. What is bright, and what is in focus draws the viewers interest therefore whatever is important in the image should be well focused and whatever is a distraction should be removed from the frame or blurred in a pleasing way.  A magician has an advantage – he can easily distract (misdirect) you with a noise, a question, or a gesture. A photograph, however, is unchanging and must be well composed or its message is thwarted.

Contrast and Visibility

Did you ever wonder why magicians often perform coin magic with old silver dollars? It is certainly not because silver dollars are more magical than a US dime, but the old US silver dollars are much larger – and thus easier to see. In photography making your subject stand out from the background is the analog of the magician’s large coin. Indeed a classic of magic involves changing a large silver coin into a large copper coin. It is pretty astounding because the two coins are easily contrasted. I have changed a silver US quarter into a Canadian quarter and guess what… nobody notices! The coins are the same color and size so the viewer never catches on unless the coin is the sole focus.

In a similar way a photographer can employ negative space – a large empty area to set off their subjects, or strong color, light or tonal differences to emphasize the key element.

Implication and Scale

The truth about magic is that it is not what is seen that is amazing. It is what the observer believes they have seen. Surprise comes not when a pen is thrust through a dollar bill but when the pen removed and the bill appears unharmed.  Of course there is a rational explanation why there is no trace of damage: the pen did not really go through the bill (it just appeared to do so), or the actual damage done is hidden from view, or perhaps the pen is not what it appears to be. And guess what: all three methods of penetrating and restoring a bill are used! All three methods result in a similar experience for the observer.  In photography, like in magic, there are many adjustable variables in an exposure. One can vary the aperture, sensitivity, time, angle, light or direction and all can produce nearly identical results – albeit with some important and subtle differences.

I see lovely pictures of waterfalls all the time. But the experience of a waterfall is very different from a photo. Standing near a waterfall I hear the sound, feel the wind and coolness of the water and perceive its size. In a photo how do I get those connections? Unless the photo contains clues water flowing over pebbles and water flowing over enormous boulders look identical. Ambiguity in scale can be intriguing, but it can also be frustrating.  Where the scale of the scene is important to the impact of the image something of known size must be present – e.g. a person or a leaf. Some element in the image should also give the viewer a sense of orientation – a principle that Galen Rowell calls “visual daylight“. We literally get that visual daylight in the original, uncropped Photo 2 – complete with trees and warm sunlight. This image was taken at the end of Whitney Portal Road in the High Sierra west of Lone Pine, California.

... Life is But a Dream ... [C_009244ps]

Photo 2: A relatively small waterfall with plenty of clues about the scale - including trees and leaves. And the long exposure (1/2 second) gives a sense of motion.

Photo 2 could have a stronger impact. For starters, the branch across the top is rather distracting. Cropping the original photo (see Crop 1) to provide a vertical treatment gives a strong verticality, and a diagonal S curve. The water seems to flow in at the upper left and out at the right with plenty of clues about what it is and the size. The perspective feels like we see it while standing in the stream (which I was!) and from a low angle.

Crop 1: Shaped like this emphasizes the verticality and the water.

A traditional landscape view completely changes what we are seeing. The image is now about the boulder – or the fall we can not be sure which and it is less appealing. The boulder feels like a big stop sign telling us not to enter into the scene.

Crop 2: A more traditional landscape format. It lacks the interest of the original in part because we are not sure what the subject is.

Cropping off the distracting branches, but leaving in a rock at the lower right we now can appreciate the boulder and how it is part of the scene but not feel blocked by it. While the viewing angle has not changed this Crop 3 gives a sense that we are now looking downward onto the scene.

Crop 3: Here the branch is removed and the photo flows diagonally from the upper left to the lower right through a diagonal S curve. This treatment is less curvaceous than Crop 1.

We have now looked at 4 views identical in every respect except how they have been framed. Good magicians think about and structure their performance with framing in mind. They must present coherence in subjects and motion, and leave out extraneous and distracting elements. And all of these concepts are also true of photography!

Go out and create a magical photograph – but do not expect that Abracadabra will get it done alone. Invest some practice and thought.

I hope you always find your light magical and your subjects enchanting.